Guardians Sign Largest Possible Version of Stereotypical Guardians Hitter

Josh Bell
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

No team hates hitting for power as much as the Cleveland Guardians.

Scotty, the Guardians Need More Power
wRC+ Runs K% Contact% HR ISO
Value 99 698 18.2 80.8 127 .129
Rank 16th 15th 1st 1st 29th 28th

Roughly a league-average offense overall, the Guardians ranked near the bottom — and absolute rock bottom among offenses that were worth a damn — in home runs and ISO. You’d hope that such a team would also be particularly good at putting the ball in play, and you’d be right; Cleveland had the highest team contact rate and lowest strikeout rate in baseball. José Ramírez has been the Guardians’ franchise player for several years, and by 2022 the team had basically been built in his image: short guys with high contact rates.

Three Cleveland hitters — Ramírez, Steven Kwan, and Myles Straw — finished in the top 13 in strikeout rate among qualified hitters and were among the 21 hardest hitters to strike out. The team leader in strikeouts was Andrés Giménez, a 5-foot-11 middle infielder who hit .297 with a strikeout rate of just 20.1%. For comparison, the Braves, who won 101 games and scored the third-most runs in baseball, had nine hitters with 300 or more plate appearances last year; every single one of them had a higher strikeout rate than Giménez did.

This is the last team in baseball you’d expect to sink big money into a 260-pound first baseman with a 37-homer season in his recent past, particularly considering the franchise’s famous frugality. Cleveland ran a payroll of just $69 million last year, after all. But Josh Bell isn’t your garden variety big fella. If he were, the Guardians would not have signed him to a two-year, $33 million contract, as Jon Heyman reported Tuesday afternoon.

Bell is built like, well, a church bell: large, wide, and solid. And like a church bell, he also makes loud contact, but only intermittently. Now, if you thought that simile was painful, get a load of Bell’s numbers after being traded to the Padres at this summer’s deadline. In the interest of not festooning this post with more tables than necessary, here they are, up against his numbers with Washington in 2022, and in each of the three preceding seasons.

Josh Bell’s Inconsistency, Through the Years
PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BB% K% HardHit% GB/FB Swing%
2022 (w/SDP) 210 .192 .316 .271 75 15.2 19.5 40.9 2.00 41.4
2022 (w/WSN) 437 .301 .384 .493 143 11.2 14.0 40.4 1.49 47.5
2021 568 .261 .347 .476 119 11.4 17.8 51.5 2.02 46.7
2020 223 .226 .305 .364 76 9.9 26.5 42.9 2.17 46.0
2019 613 .277 .367 .569 135 12.1 19.2 46.4 1.18 48.1

Here are the constants of Bell’s career: He’s a patient hitter with a good grasp of the strike zone and excellent contact skills. With the exception of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he has never walked in fewer than 10% of his plate appearances nor struck out more than 20% of the time. That season was also the only time he made contact on less than three-quarters of his swings. When he makes contact, which again is frequently, he usually hits the ball hard. Perhaps not as hard as you’d expect from a man who looks like he could squat a tugboat, but better than average overall, with the occasional 110-mph outlier. His contact and plate discipline numbers set him apart from most of the other free agents on the beefy end of the defensive spectrum, and by those metrics, he’ll be right at home with the slap-and-run Guardians.

The other parts of Bell’s game are less consistent. Over the past four seasons, there have been three distinct Bells: one who gets the ball in the air at least part of the time and hits like a down-ballot MVP candidate, one who smashes the ball into the ground and hits like a backup catcher, and an intermediate version who doesn’t elevate the ball but hits it so hard he puts up acceptable numbers anyway.

We saw the first Bell in 2019 and the first half of ’22, the second in ’20 and the second half of ’22, and the third in ’21. Let’s look at the two extremes. The best version of Bell combines power, patience, and contact in a fashion few hitters can replicate. If he could guarantee that kind of production, he quite frankly would not be available to a team like the Guardians. Rather than part of the muddled middle class of first base/DH free agents, he would’ve been no. 1 at that position, ahead of José Abreu and Anthony Rizzo. And considering that he just turned 30 and is quite a bit younger than both, he would be commanding a four- or five-year contract in the $20 million-a-year range — perhaps more.

But the downside is too great to ignore. Particularly because the last iteration of Bell we saw was not only ground ball-happy but also passive at the plate. Hence the lucrative but relatively short-term contract, which features an opt-out after the first year. It’s a bit heavier than the three-year, $39 million deal our readers predicted, and almost twice as much as the two-year, $18 million pact that Ben Clemens suggested he’d get. Even with the caveat that the first couple rounds of free-agent activity have featured more splashing of cash than our predictions, this is a stiff price.

And you know what? I get it. When Bell is good, he’s so good, and in a fashion that not only makes him unusual in this free agent class, but also perhaps uniquely suited to Cleveland’s offensive style of play. The Guardians are in dire need of a DH who can hit for power and are either unable or unwilling to shop in the expensive aisles of the market. It’s a risk, to be sure, but not a foolish one. The Bell that the Guardians are trying to conjure isn’t some fading memory like, say, MVP-quality Cody Bellinger; he was right here, drawing walks and smashing dingers, within the past six months. If that Bell reappears, this contract, even with its surprisingly high price, will look like a bargain.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Scotty Gmember
2 months ago

When I first read the heading on the first table, I honestly lost my breath for a moment thinking FanGraphs was now adding creepy super personalized content like Instagram.